Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism

“Life as experience tears up programs, treads decorum under foot, breaks the windows, descends from the ivory tower. It abandons the City of Established Facts, out through the Gate of Settled Matters and roams, vagabond, in the open countryside of the Unforeseen.”


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I am not, when all is said and done, an individualist—not, at least, in any exclusive or defining manner. Anyone who has followed my work can no doubt guess that I have derived a great deal of pleasure from the literature of individualism, and particularly from the anarchist individualism of figures like E. Armand. I count Stirner among my influences (and that guy with all the funny names among my friends), but neither am I an egoist. I’m generally of the opinion of Proudhon—(“All these isms aren’t worth a pair of boots!”)—but I’ll answer happily enough to anarchist, mutualist, synthesist.

Still, if I can’t embrace individualism as an identity or an ideology, I’ve never seen the means to do without it as one discipline or practice among those necessary to life as an anarchist. And I feel fairly confident that, despite all of the attempts to jettison it along the way, the anarchist tradition has never found those means either. So it seems natural at this stage in the work on Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back to take the time to come to terms with anarchist individualism and begin to sketch out its place in the synthetic plain anarchism I am presently seeking to elaborate.

Were circumstances different, this particular part of the project might have waited for another time, but as the pandemic has shifted my focus to works on hand, and as the 20th-century individualists have captured my attention for the moment, I’m happy to embrace when circumstances have placed in front of me. And, with both the character of the material to be addressed and those rather unusual circumstances in mind, my intention is to tackle this phase of things somewhat differently than I have some of the others.

Taking my cues from the columns of papers like l’en dehors, I’ll be organizing my thoughts about anarchist individualism in somewhat smaller and perhaps more easily digestible chunks than usual: sketches, notes, vignettes, perhaps a prose poem and perhaps some odds and ends scavenged from old posts and other writings.

And, indeed, to start things off, what better than on old entry introducing the figure of the Contr’un…

Who Is the Contr’un?

[Originally posted May 19, 2014]

Basically, the Contr’un is the star of the show here, the Whitmanesque subject who contains multitudes and is not contained between hat and boots, who spills out over all the property lines we might draw, at the same time drawing the world in without attempting to claim exclusive domain. It is the subject understood in its general economy. It is an individual characterized by an antinomic relationship with its own individuality, a counter-self, the one against the (absolutist) One. It is frustrating, messy (at least in the context of our attempts to draw clean boundaries, improper (in senses that draw out all the various connotations of the proper), and perhaps rather more feminine (in familiar, probably important, but also rightly contested terms) than we are accustomed to assume—and where the conventionally masculine elements don’t seem in harmony with a phallic sort of identity. It is the form of the actors in a world where solidarity means attack (if I may be forgiven for that appropriation) at a more or less metaphysical level, where Universal Antagonism is the first fundamental law of the universe, but where the second is a kind of reciprocity that justifies that antagonism without seeking to destroy it.

In theoretical terms, a focus on the Contr’un as anarchistic subject has all sorts of consequences for how we think about property (non-exclusively, to begin) and how we think about identities (where perhaps the non-exhaustive character is the starting point.) As insights in those areas scale up, it has the potential to work a fairly complete overhaul on a lot of the familiar apparatus of anarchism. I’ve already made suggestions about a different sort of class analysis, as well as a different analysis of intersectionality. Most of that work, however, remains to be done, as just the question of property alone has been enough to occupy much of my time here for several years now. The time is coming to get right down to it, but there is some useful review and clarification to be done first.

In more personal, practical terms, the Contr’un is really the position from which this blog is written. My own opposition to absolutism and fundamentalism, even when it is the absolutism and fundamentalism of would-be anarchists, is at the heart of the project here. Historical work, archiving, and close reading of texts may seem like fundamentally conservative labors to some (often those who haven’t done much of the work), but faced with the sort of false memory syndrome that afflicts so much of the movement, it’s sort of amazing what can manage to be radical. I think about Joseph Déjacque’s colorful opening to The Humanisphere:

I take possession of my solitary corner and, there, with teeth and claws, like a rat in the shadows, I scratch and gnaw at the worm-eaten walls of the old society. By day, as well, I use my hours of unemployment, I arm myself with a pen like a borer, I dip it in bile for grease, and, little by little, I open a way, each day larger, to the flood of the new…

and think, “right there with ya, brother.” That absolutist One comes in a wide variety of guises, and in the last year I’ve been exploring some of the ways that anarchism itself might join the list of possibilities. In case it hasn’t been clear, that doesn’t seem to me to be any sort of idle speculation. From my perspective, it seems more like addressing a real, present problem in the movement. And that is what has suggested the necessity of focusing some attention of what I’ve been calling contr’archy, the aspect of anarchism that concerns itself with avoiding absolutism, and returning to the metaphor of the two guns of mutualism, to all the ways in which the most consistent anti-authoritarian theory and practice may still threaten to blow up in our faces. On this more personal register, the Contr’un is me, and, I suspect, most anyone who wants to join on me in my explorations here for any length of time.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.